Discuss as:

On the prowl for man-eating tigers

JAMBI, Sumatra, Indonesia – The tiger had ripped apart the body of 19-year-old Imam, and his remains were spread about 40 feet from his ransacked forest shelter. All that was left of his severed head was the bare skull. The tiger had eaten the rest it.

The body of Imam's 51-year-old father, Suyut, lay closer to the shelter and was largely intact.

"It was shocking," said Nurazman, who heads the Forestry Department's local conservation office and was the first to the scene. "We collected the body parts as quickly as possible, because we knew the tiger was still there. We could feel it."

Ian Williams/NBC News
Salma, a tiger blamed for the deaths of at least 3 people, at the Tambling rehab center.

The two victims, illegal loggers, had been asleep when the tiger crashed through the plastic-sheeted roof of their makeshift hut in the dead of night. A third logger managed to escape, raising the alarm, but was in shock for days afterwards.

Nurazman (who, like many Indonesians, goes by only one name) led the hunt for the man-eater. A few days later they trapped a young 180 pound tigress, who they named Salma, and she was blamed for the deaths of Imam and Suyut and those of four others in this region of Central Sumatra.

Salma was found to be lactating, but there was no sign of her cub. Nurazman speculated at the time that the theft of her cub was the motive for the vicious attacks.

Among terrified villagers, many of whom believe tigers have almost supernatural powers, word spread that Salma had methodically tracked down and eaten those responsible.

But even after Salma was caught in March of last year, the tiger attacks continued. Nurazman says 15 people, all of them illegal loggers, have died in this one small area of Sumatra since the beginning of 2009. He now believes Salma killed three of them at most and could have been motivated by revenge.

Whatever the reason for Salma’s attacks, Sumatra's Jambi Province has become the focus of a showdown between tigers and people, who are increasingly encroaching on their diminishing habitat.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy

‘Tigers were never like this before’
There are perhaps 400 tigers left in the wild in Sumatra, and according to one estimate, they are being poached at the rate of 30 a year.

"Ten years ago, this area was all forest," Nurazman told me, as we bent over the graves of Imam and his father. "Now plantations are everywhere. The forest has gone."

Logging – both legal and illegal – is cutting deeper into the forest. Palm oil plantations are proliferating, and villagers, many of them migrants from the crowded island of Java, are moving here in ever growing numbers.
"We are only trying to make a living," one logger told me in the frontline village of Pataling, which consists of a string of wooden houses along a bumpy mud road. It is also the village from which Imam and his father launched their logging missions.

"The tigers were never like this before," the village chief, Sujiono Basir, told me. "We would meet tigers in the past, but they were never fierce."

Basir is a native of Sumatra and talks about tigers with respect and awe. He blames the outsiders for what's happening in the area. Imam and his father had come from Java.

"If we destroy their life, then they will threaten us," he told me. "If the tiger has food and shelter, they just pass us by."

Ian Wililams/NBC News
The villagers of Pataling live in fear on the edge of the tigers habitat.

Tiger rehab
Most tigers who come into conflict with humans – and not killed by poachers or frightened humans – are sent to zoos, but Salma was sent to rehab. It’s a controversial new program aimed to recondition tigers that have come into conflict with humans for a return to the wild, or at least a protected and sustainable part of it.

That's where I met Salma, and a second man-eater called Ucok, suspected of killing two people in north Sumatra.

It was a chilling experience. They were in two large, adjoining cages. Their deep piercing roar could make you shudder before you get anywhere near them. They have a raw ferocity the likes of which you will never find in a zoo. One look in their eyes tells you these are wild animals.

The rehab center is part of Tambling Wildlife Nature Conservation, a 110,000 acre conservation area abutting a national park on the southern tip of Sumatra and run by Tomy Winata, a tycoon turned conservationist.

"The animals are the landlords of this area," he told me.

Ian Wililams/NBC News
The Tambling Wildlife Nature Conservation, a 110,000 acre conservation area, hosts a rehab center for wild tigers.

Tigers instinctively stay away from people. The idea of tiger rehab is to restore their natural wariness of humans by largely isolating them from people and weaning them back onto other live prey before releasing them into a more protected region.

Four tigers have already gone through rehab and been released in the area. One was poached, but Tambling thinks the other three have successfully established a range in the area.

Nobody knows for sure what turns a tiger into a man-eater, but most experts agree that in Sumatra it started with loss of habitat.

"When tigers are losing their prey because of habitat loss, they are going outside their habitat to look for food," said Robert Lee, a tiger conservation specialist with UNESCO in Jakarta.

They stray into villages and come to prey increasingly on livestock and other easy targets, even dogs. When this happens, it may not be long before a hungry tiger clashes with humans.

Conservation officers like Nurazman are encouraging villagers to report tiger sightings before there are clashes.

During our visit to Tambling, a third tiger, Mekar, was flown in after being caught in another village. Terrified villagers had videoed her using a shaky cell phone as she prowled around their huts.

This time, forestry officials were brought in and caught her before harm was done to humans – or the tiger.

Ian Wililams/NBC News
Mekar, a tiger caught in the wild and brought to the Tambling rehab center.

‘Tiger Summit’
The plight of tigers like these will be discussed at a "Tiger Summit" beginning Sunday in St. Petersburg, Russia. It will bring together leaders from the 13 countries where tigers still live in the wild. It is being hailed as a last chance to save the tiger, and is expected to end with a pledge to double the wild tiger population over the next ten years.

The corner of Sumatra where the Tambling rehab center is located is already home to around 30 tigers. It is isolated, relatively protected, and wildlife rich. The hope is that for now it can provide a critical refuge for troubled tigers like Ucok, Salma and Mekar.

But the tide is moving relentlessly against the Sumatran tiger. The reality is one of rapidly declining habitat loss, and unless that is reversed, it is difficult to see how tiger numbers can be boosted.

Visit msnbc.com for breaking news, world news, and news about the economy